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but at least the war is over

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Renaud left them two things, before he went.

The first was a cane. He’d explained it to Abigail, John sitting at the same kitchen table as they talked—traumatic injury, tendon damage, bullet wounds rarely let someone heal to the way they were before. The cane was sleek, black, unassuming, and John already knew Arthur would still hate it.

The second was a name. Though Renaud had asked little about who they were, the kinds of things they did, it would be a disservice to the man for John to assume he hadn’t guessed what they were between the gun wounds and the constant watch around the homestead. He knew they were moving soon, and, as he put it, he “didn’t put in all this work for his patients to freeze to death overwinter”. Abraham Hasting, Renaud told them, outside a small town in Augusta, was a former patient, a rancher, one willing to board down-on-their-luck folks in exchange for decent work. He wasn’t the type to ask questions so long as nobody was getting hurt. Renaud would put in a good word.

John had pressed some cash into Renaud’s palms, a good portion of what they had left from their pooled savings, because they weren’t charity cases, nor did they deserve the man’s charity. Furthermore, in the later days, when Arthur no longer needed more constant care, Renaud had been down to Beacon Brook, treating the poorer folk down in town that were just scraping by, the kind that couldn’t pay. As much as John’d like to believe in endless good, the reality was that treating Arthur and him had probably drained Renaud’s resources. It was only right to give enough to refill them, at the very least.

And Renaud had accepted, maybe because he could guess there was no price they wouldn’t pay, that John wouldn’t pay, for Arthur to keep living. Or maybe he understood the how the world worked just as much as John did.

He closed up Arthur’s wound before he went. John’s shoulder had been stitched back together several days earlier, when Renaud had done something with a cotton swab and a glass dish that apparently indicated to him that it was fit for closing. Did the same for Arthur, just before he mentioned that it was about time for him to leave.

The infection seemed to be gone from Arthur, but the hole itself was far from healed. It was clear in the way he moved, in what little moving he was allowed to do—all of it slower than normal, his body tighter than it should be. Even the short walk out to the kitchen table to eat, something Renaud had suggested, something to keep his muscles from shrinking with disuse, left Arthur a shade paler, sometimes sweating. Even with the infection gone, even with the wound stitched, things weren’t better.

And John—Arthur wasn’t talking to John.

They’d had words with each other, sure, but all limited to the realities of living in the same house. The best John was likely to get was a word or two here or there, never without John saying or asking or doing something first, and an annoyed look or being flat-out ignored at worst.

Might’ve been easier to swallow if Arthur was the same to everyone in the house, if it were just the pain making him surly, but that weren’t the case either. John’d been in the room when Charles handed Arthur the letter from Rains Fall, had watched as Arthur sank lower into the pillows propping his torso up as he read, brow furrowed, jaw set. But it wasn’t until John had left the room, called away by Abigail, that he caught the sound of muffled talking through the door, Arthur’s voice the low growl that he got when he was particularly frustrated or angry. Because even then, even angry, at least Arthur deigned to talk to Charles.

Not John though, no, most he ever got were grunts and glares.

A wall had gone back up. Something had closed. Somehow they were back to Marston and Morgan again, and John couldn’t for the life of him figure how or when it had happened. He’d almost rather they go back to fighting, to the barbed comments and even the fists. It’d at least be something John could grasp at.

Maybe that was why, the day after Renaud left, when John pushed open the door to the bedroom and found Arthur on his feet, half-dressed, John decided right then that either he was going to be complicit in whatever Arthur was intending to do or they were going to shout at each other. Neither could be worse than the not talking.

Arthur jerked his head up towards John when he shut the door behind him, and just as quickly jerked his head back away, giving an annoyed scoff. He was leant heavily against the baseboard of the bed, shoving his arms through the sleeves of a shirt.

“What?” John snapped, more out of habit than anything else, because he’d heard the same noise from Arthur countless times and picking a fight was still on the table.

“Y’know,” Arthur growled as he began on the buttons, the shirt still loose on his too thin frame, “you could knock. Weren’t aware bein’ wounded meant forfeitin’ my right to privacy.”

“Naw,” John shot back, “you forfeited that the first time you tried to get out of bed without Abigail’s blessin'.”

That earned him a sharp glare and a turn, Arthur switching to using one arm against the bedspread to keep himself standing. “You got a problem, Marston?”

John crossed his arms, something his shoulder had just recently healed enough to allow again. “Just want to know what you’re plannin’ to pull here.”

“I…” Arthur said, pulling his suspenders up over his shoulders, “…am going out to see my horses.” The tone in his voice turned the statement into a dare, bait for John to try and stop him.

John did not rise to take it, because he had, just in that moment, settled on complicit over shouting. “Y’want some company?”

There was a beat before Arthur asked, “From you?” The satisfaction he got from the slightly incredulous look Arthur gave him was petty, but, hey, here he was choosing something over fighting with the man. That was worth something.

“’less you want me to shout for Abigail.” Abigail was, at that moment, down in town with Tilly and Jack, picking up the usual supplies and looking through the new shipment of books the general store just got in, but it was a safe bet Arthur didn’t know that.

Arthur gave him another glare, but this one softer than the previous one. “Believe that’s what’s called blackmail.”

“Learnt it from the best, didn’t I?”

“Havin’ trouble figurin’ why you’re trying to blackmail yourself into spending time with an invalid.” Arthur shrugged on a coat, one of the thickly furred numbers he’d taken to wearing once they moved north, more so even than the blue one he’d had for ages. Less weight to keep him warm, John realized belatedly.

Arthur was waiting for an answer, and John scrambled to find something that wasn’t about how he was desperate to keep Arthur talking to him. After maybe too long a pause, he said, “Listen, if you hurt yourself tryin’ to go it alone, she’s gonna come for my head. I’m protectin' my own skin here.”

The way Arthur’s eyebrows rose clearly indicated he didn’t believe John, but seemed he also had the decency not to question it. Instead he murmured a quiet, “Sure,” under his breath, snatched the cane John offered towards him with only the obligatory amount of disgust.

John didn’t really understand how a bullet low through the back could make a man walk with a limp, but Renaud seemed to know what he was talking about in all things, this included. Arthur had indeed bristled at the idea of using the cane, but seemed to have moved into a grudging acceptance of it seeing how it let him move more on his own.

Still, John hovered close behind Arthur as the man limped his way out into the yard, ready to duck under an arm, catch him by a sleeve or collar if his step faltered. But Arthur stayed sturdy, even if the whole ordeal went slow, even if John could hear the way his breathing got louder, harsher the longer he was on his feet.

By the time Arthur leaned heavily against the top rail of the paddock fence, he could easily be considered panting. The flush in his cheeks was from the walk, though, or from the November air, not from the fever, and that was something. John joined him against the fence, lit a cigarette as he watched Arthur out of the corner of his eye, let him catch his breath.

“Got a pretty little herd, don’t we?” Arthur finally said, gesturing for John to pass over a cigarette without looking at him. John gave him the one he’d already lit, struck another match and lit a second.

“Ain’t even the lot of them.” With Taima, they were up to ten horses. Arthur’s four—Buell, Fenella, Sampson, and the Tennessee Walker Arthur’d had since Colter, the one he called Gwydion—along with the brown thoroughbred, Bob, and Taima. The two cart Belgians were doing their job down with Abigail in town, as was the fleabitten grey quarter horse Tilly had grown fond of. “Nearly half of them are yours, anyhow.”

“Weren’t saying it was a bad thing.” Maybe it was the smell of the cigarettes, but they were starting to be noticed, Fenella, grazing the closest, picking up her head, ears pricked towards the sound of Arthur’s voice. Arthur clucked over at her, made a few noises that sounded enough like kisses to make John laugh under his breath as Fenella tossed her head, strutted over towards them.

“You’re a bleedin' heart, Morgan.”

“If I whistle, they’re all gonna run over at once and someone’s gonna get bit.” Fenella’s nostrils flared as she got closer, getting the smell of the two men, and her pace picked up until she was shoving her nose into Arthur’s chest.

“Meant the fact you somehow got four horses you refuse to part with.” And, apparently, horses that refused to part with him. That was the second horse that had greeted Arthur like an old friend.

Arthur fished something out of one of his pockets, because of course he somehow had some sort of horse treat squirreled away in them, and offered it to Fenella. “Folk kept givin’ me horses,” he said as she took it delicately from his palm. “Ain’t my fault.”

“Don’t gotta keep everything you’re given.”

“What, and let some farmer run ‘em into the ground?”

“Provin’ my point,” John muttered under his breath.

So that was one way to get Arthur Morgan talking to him again, asking about his horses. Maybe John should’ve guessed, the way he’d always been around them. Boadicea, the horse Arthur’d had for years and lost in the Blackwater mess trying to lead heat away from the wagons, had been rivaled in his affection only by his dog, Copper, who’d passed just about a year ago. Certainly loved both creatures more than he ever did John, though maybe after his year away from the gang that wasn’t saying much.

A few of the other horses had spotted Fenella over by the fence, had started to make their way over at their own varying paces. Taima stopped in briefly, hunting for treats and moving on once she got her share. Bob was much the same, both horses amiable enough but not particularly interested in hanging around with folks that weren’t their respective people. Arthur’s big shire pushed his way through, once again only settling once he’d fully examined Arthur and received a peppermint for his trouble, and bringing along with him Gwydion and the thoroughbred.

“Yours?” Arthur asked, holding a hand out for the thoroughbred to sniff.

“Sorta.” John watched as Arthur dug around in his pocket, pulled out yet another treat from his seemingly endless supply. “One of the two that got us down to Copperhead.” Course he didn’t remember, how out of it with pain and blood loss he’d been.

“Didn’t realize we kept them.” Arthur’s voice was stilted, guarded, like they were circling around something, and John had absolutely no clue what it was they were circling.

“Sure,” John said as the thoroughbred turned her attention to him, and he obliged her with a pat on the neck. “Been thinkin’ of callin’ her Rachel.”

There’d been some sort of tension building, but, apparently, that was enough to break it apart, because beside him Arthur snorted. “Rachel?”

“Alright,” John said, dropping his spent cigarette into the grass and grinding it out with a heel, “you ain’t got no right to give me shit over what I name my horses. Fenella? Gwydion? Boadicea?”

“Least I got some goddamn creativity.”

“Least folks can pronounce what names my horses get.”

“Yeah, ‘cause half the women they’ve bedded got the same name.”

“It’s in the Bible, Morgan.”

“Oh, excuse me, didn’t know it were in the Bible.” Slightly muffled as Arthur brought his own cigarette back to his lips.

They were bickering, sure, but it felt easy, light, like something that might’ve happened in camp over the fire after a long day. Like before John left, even, when competing for Dutch’s attention was the lot of the rift between them. A nostalgia familiar enough to grasp at, but too far to seize in his fist.

Arthur glanced the mare over again, leaning a little harder on the fence as he craned his neck over it, and John could tell his eyes were appraising this time, looking at how she held herself, the shape of her neck, shoulders, the alignment of her legs. “Nice enough horse. She replacing Old Boy, that it?”

“Don’t know if I got any other choice.” It was hard to even think of it as a replacement. John’d had Old Boy not even half a year, and nearly a month of that he’d been in Sisika. He was a smart, sturdy horse, and John liked him well enough, but it felt like he was still learning who the stallion was by the time he was killed.

And yet, the same could be said of all of Arthur’s horses, and he still had an incomprehensible attachment to the lot of them. John’d never understood that, the way the man could be so reserved in most things but care so immediately about a few horses. Hell, Buell’d only been around a month and Arthur refused to hear any negative talk about him, even though the horse was a mean piece of work.

Speaking of which: “Buell ain’t comin’ over.”

Arthur looked up, followed John’s gaze up to where the stallion was grazing, facing away from them in a way that had to be pointed, ignoring them on purpose.

“Buell,” Arthur started, gesturing over at the horse, “is moody.” Like that explained the whole goddamn thing.

“Don’t know if moody is the right word for tryin’ to bite me every time I get near him.”

“Maybe he just don’t like you much. Can’t say I blame him.”

John made a face, muttered, “Ain’t only me he’s tryin’ to bite,” but Arthur wasn’t looking over at him, was instead looking over at the stallion, brow furrowed.

“Listen, Buell’s the kinda horse what could move a mountain in a good mood, but in a bad mood might toss you just to watch the way you hit the ground. You mount up when he’s in a bad mood, best be confident in your ability to stick a few bucks. Right now,” Arthur pointed out towards the stallion, “he’s in a bad mood. Got his ears this way, so he knows we’re here, but he’s swung himself away. Go near him now and he’s liable to offer a kick at best.”

John found himself watching Arthur as he spoke, rather than Buell. This was more words than the sum of what Arthur’d said to him in days, maybe even in weeks. Certainly the first time in a long while they’d talked anything inconsequential. Here Arthur was loose, relaxed, lent up against the fence like there wasn’t a partly-healed hole through his gut. Only the yellow-brown ghost of some bruising lingered against his jawbone, barely visible through the stubble. Still too thin, but his eyes brighter than they’d been in ages, than they’d ever been at Beaver Hollow. Didn’t have his hat on, even though John’d left it on the room’s dresser. Arthur hadn’t touched the thing since he put it on John’s head back on the mountain.

Finally, after a few moments of silence, Arthur looked back over at John, noticed his gaze. “What?”

Right, Buell. “Don’t know if he’s worth the effort you seem to want to put into him.”

“Ain’t really my choice, all things told. Owe the feller what owned him.”

“To take his horse?”

“After he died, sure.”

There, like with Renaud and Charlotte, was the nagging sense Arthur’d had a whole life John’d had no clue existed. More people John’d never even heard of, all owed things to or from Arthur. Apparently willed a goddamn golden stallion, and never even said a word of it to anyone at camp. Made John’s head spin.

“Anyway, Buell lost Hamish, I shove him in a stable after barely a few weeks havin’ him, then some strange folk cart him up a state and leave him out to pasture. Think he’s earned a bit of bad mood, so much as a horse can.”

Same as the rest of them, maybe. “So how the hell you get him in a good mood?”

Arthur sighed, shifted against the fence. “Still figurin’ that. Likes to eat, but I ain’t got much beyond it. Thought if I made it out alive I’d work with him properly then.”

“‘If’, huh?” It was out of John’s mouth before he could stop it, laced with a whole bitter tone he couldn’t prevent either, and the easy atmosphere they’d built shattered. John regretted it immediately, but it was done, because he could never let things sit. Because he was exhausted with if, because after all this talk of if the fever dropped, if the infection passed, if Arthur lived to see another morning, Arthur was using the same damn language.

A beat, before Arthur said, slowly, “Don’t.” It was low, a warning as he dropped his cigarette to the dirt, pressed the ball of his foot down over it.

“Don’t what?” More than Arthur’d said to him in days, and here John was, fucking it up.

Don’t.” And somehow that made it worse, that Arthur had to know why John was angry, had to know the threat of loss still hung in the air, and still refused to say a thing about it.

“Don’t what, Arthur? Talk about the fact you don’t seem particularly happy to be awake?”

Arthur met John’s gaze, eyes hard, brow low, voice still quiet in that dangerous way. “You ain’t got a goddamn clue what you’re talkin' about, Marston.”

“And that’s the goddamn problem, you ain’t tellin' me shit.” Too loud, always too loud. “Maybe if you’d tell me what the hell I don’t know, I’d have a better goddamn clue.”

“Fine, John, fine.” And Arthur turned his body to face John, knuckles white where his hand still gripped the fence keeping him upright, and he was swelling up like a dog with its hackles raised, even as John noticed he was several shades paler now than he’d been when they left the house. Refusing to back away from a brewing fight even as his legs threatened to give out on him because, of course, Arthur was the attack dog, the intimidator, the one to finish fights other folks started, body breaking apart and all. And Arthur was saying, “You shoulda left me on that mountain.”

John wanted to take a step back, wanted to rock back from this entire mess. His heart was beating loud in his ears, made it hard to hear his own voice as he choked out, “You can’t be serious.”

But the look on Arthur’s face, guarded but his eyes like a cornered animal, all but confirmed he was. And then—

“Y’boys okay?”

Sadie, looking like she’d just rounded the corner of the house, peered at them, head titled. She had her gun belt on, rifle slung over her shoulder, because of course she’d been on watch, and of course she’d been able to hear John, how he was yelling.

Arthur made some disagreeable noise between a scoff and a growl, grabbed the cane and pushed himself away from the fence. Was through the door to the house without another word to either Sadie or John.

Sadie watched him go, watched the door a bit longer, then turned slowly back to John. “Weren’t aware fightin’ was on the doctor’s approved activities list.”

And John made his own disagreeable noise and turned back towards the fence, let his arms drape over the top rail. After a moment, Sadie leaned her back up against the fence next to him. That much John was grateful for, that she didn’t expect him to look at her but that she wasn’t leaving either.

After a few moments letting things sit, Sadie said, “Neither of you know when to leave things be, do you?”

John sighed, considered lighting a cigarette just to have something to do with his hands. “I don’t understand what’s goin’ on with him.” Sure, Charles had said Arthur might not be grateful for what they did, but there was a difference between not being grateful and saying John should’ve left him on the damn mountain. John didn’t get it, couldn’t even wrap his head around it.

Beside him, he could hear Sadie shift against the fence, but he kept his face out towards the horses. “Listen, John, I ain’t much one for talkin’, and I definitely ain't presumin' to know what the two of you are goin’ through with this Dutch thing, but I don’t think yellin’ is gonna help things.”

“It’s the only way I can get him to talk to me.” This time he did start fumbling the cigarettes out of his pocket, offering one over to Sadie before he brought the matches out.

“Imagine you need to give it time,” Sadie said as she took it, and he heard her light her own match beside him. “Least time enough for the both of you to have workin’ bodies before pickin' fights.”

“Don’t think we try and pick ‘em. Just end up in fights anyway.” Most of the time, at least. He couldn’t deny that he’d picked fights just to be ornery in the past, but mostly fights with Arthur seemed to just unfold all on their own like some inevitable conclusion.

“Could try backin' down for once.”

“Rich, comin’ from you.” John hadn’t ridden much with Sadie between all that’d happened in the past few months, but he knew enough to know she would fight any man who so much as looked at her wrong, and with a vengeance at that.

“Lord knows it ain’t easy to do, but sounds to me you ain’t got much choice. It’s that or let him kill himself runnin’ up against you.”

“Temptin',” John said, though it wasn’t.

 


 

A few days before December hit, they started north towards Abraham Hasting’s farm.

All said, Abigail would’ve preferred a few more days rest, way she said it, but their hand was forced. On the regular run down to Beacon Brook to pick up necessities, her and Tilly had spotted a few men in suits who, while they didn’t identify themselves as Pinkertons, spooked the working class folks in town enough to make it clear who they were. They weren’t in direct danger, not yet, seeing as the Pinkertons didn’t even look twice at Abigail or Tilly when they passed them on the street, but it was clear that they were still looking for Van der Linde survivors, and that search was now widening.

So, they left Albert Russell’s homestead early on a grey morning. By wagon, because, though they’d talked through the possibility of heading up to Augusta by train, there was too much risk in being cornered with rail travel. They were still conspicuous, for all manner of things but maybe especially the fact that Arthur was still visibly hurting. Even if they weren’t stopped on the train, there were too many people, too much chance someone would remember them enough to report a description back to law later down the line.

Back when they rode out from Willard’s Rest they’d taken a risk, having John occasionally drive the wagon, one made necessary by the condition Arthur was in. Now, though, with Pinkertons seen in Beacon Brook and enough people in their little group to allow for it, they needed to be more careful. The wagon setup was an old trick, one John had learned within months of being picked up, from whenever they’d needed to leave towns covertly to escape whatever trouble the gang had stirred up. Pack everything in crates and chests. Line either side of the wagon with crates and spread a board across them, creating a crawlspace. Stack the crates over the boards, so the crawlspace couldn’t be seen by anyone peering over the sides.

Of course, John had never ridden in the crawlspace before, because it had always been Dutch or Hosea who’d been the more recognizable faces, the ones who needed to hide. John had always ridden in front, where he could easily pass for a homesteader’s son, accompanying his mother or sisters or whatever else whoever else was with him wanted to pretend they were, traveling to meet his father in whichever direction they happened to be traveling. By the time John was grown, participating in jobs on the regular, they’d grown too large, too unwieldy to do much beyond try to move out before they got heat, or instead fast enough that it was no use hiding. However, when law didn’t do more than glance in the back of a wagon, it was a fairly reliable trick.

It was also, John quickly discovered, a miserable way to travel.

They left a gap in the crates near the front of the wagon, enough for Arthur or John to sit up in, talk to the folks up front, or for Jack to sit back with them if he got bored. But most of their time was spent under the luggage. The crawlspace itself was filled with blankets and pillows and all very cushy in the way John knew had to have been because of his and Arthur’s respective injuries. Even then, though, it was tight, claustrophobic, not much wider than what space he and Arthur took up lying shoulder-to-shoulder, and not much taller than the width of Arthur’s shoulders. Despite the wealth of cushioning, every significant bump the wagon’s wheels hit jarred John, and that combined with the smell of him and Arthur in an enclosed space—neither of them’d had more than a sponge bath in weeks, and they smelt like it—meant John spent the ride dipping in and out of vague nausea.

He couldn’t even imagine how bad it might be in the summer with the heat. At least the chill in the air kept the space from getting too warm. Dutch and Hosea had ridden for days in the summer and fully sealed in their crawlspaces too, not even with the gap for light and air. John had no idea how they could’ve stomached it.

Arthur, of course, spent at least half the ride sleeping like nothing was different, because the bastard could fall asleep anywhere. Lying on his left side, keeping the pressure off the wound. Between the sleeping he was mostly quiet, reading or writing in the light that filtered back to them, all in the crawlspace likely due to the difficulty of hauling his body out to sit up. Otherwise he talked some to whoever was rotating through sitting up front, some to Jack when he was bored enough to join them, and very little to John, despite them being trapped in an enclosed space together.

Maybe it should’ve been a blessing, seeing as John wasn’t fully confident he could keep his tongue in check if they were to get into a longer conversation. Even what little they’d said—mostly negotiating space, Arthur telling him to move the hell over, John telling Arthur to watch his head as John hauled himself out into the open—was sharp, clipped, avoiding anything beyond what was active and present.

It wasn’t even that Arthur was acting like nothing had happened, because he sure wasn’t. John wasn’t sure if he regretted the admission he’d made to John or if he was angry at John for pushing in the first place, but, either way, his disposition was decidedly surly and withdrawn for the most part. All in all, not too different from what John had grown used to the past two years, except that he’d thought Arthur had finally moved past that, and that they could go back to being normal.

Maybe John didn’t know what normal was, though, not with Arthur. Felt like so much of what they were before was defined around Dutch, what Dutch said they were and what loving Dutch made them into. Sure, he’d called Arthur a brother up on the mountain, and that didn’t exactly feel wrong, but also didn’t feel like enough. Arthur was the only one left who knew what it was like, being raised like they were, being what they were, and the idea of losing that ached at John’s stomach. And here Arthur was, saying John should’ve left him, like that was ever an option.

Things were going to come to a head eventually, John figured, because as content as Arthur often was to let things stew until he was at risk of taking them to his grave, John could never do the same. Where Arthur was the stoic enforcer, willing to play any roles Dutch gave him, John was, after all, the wayward son. As much as he hated when Arthur said it, there was truth to him calling John the golden boy, seeing as he’d always been able to push at Dutch in a way Arthur had refused to. Maybe that was why he’d never learned how to keep his thoughts to himself.

Still, starting shit while they were trapped daily in something not much better than a coffin was a bad idea. Even John knew that. Wouldn’t deny that leaving things to fester itched at him, though.

 


 

As miserable as the crawlspace was, it was necessary. Even if John had doubted it, it would’ve been proved to him when they made their way up to Greenridge Pass.

They’d been on the road a few days then. With only two cart horses, their pace wasn’t nearly as quick as it might be if they had a spare team to switch out, but they were on pace well enough to get up to get up past the eastern edge of the Grizzlies before the snow really set in. There’d been a few scattered flurries, but nothing that stuck with the heat of the ground. All said, they’d likely be up to the farm a few miles outside of Leighton well before any dangerous weather.

If there were any area most at risk to them in their journey, though, it was Greenridge Pass. With the mountains of Ambarino and North Ambarino, there were only so many ways one could choose to travel north, unless they were willing to climb a mountain. If the Pinkertons were figuring Van der Linde survivors went north—and their presence in Beacon Brook implied they did—there were only a few ways to get there, especially before winter sealed things off. If they sent agents out to anywhere in the wilderness, the pass was a decent bet.

John’s focus on the pass itself was why it was surprising to him when, still a good mile or two out, Abigail hissed, “John, Arthur,” the warning clear in her voice. John had been in a half-daze, somewhere not quite dozing but also not fully awake, and so there was barely time enough for him to shunt crates into the gap to the crawlspace, closing him and Arthur in, before unfamiliar voices sounded outside the wagon.

When he glanced back over at Arthur, the man hadn’t moved from where he’d been sleeping previously, but his eyes were open, blinking into the new dark of the space. He met John’s eyes briefly, then let his gaze drift, brow furrowed. Listening intently, because that was all they could do. John settled onto his back, careful to do so noiselessly, and listened the same.

The men outside were Pinkertons. Even before they introduced themselves as agents, the way they talked gave it away. An edge of smugness, of condescension to their voice, like they thought they were better than the folk around them. Though John was now lukewarm at best on Dutch’s philosophy, he didn’t think he’d ever warm to Pinkertons, not after what Milton had done to Hosea, had tried to do to Abigail and Arthur.

“Agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency,” one of the men was saying. “Mind if we ask where you folks are headed?”

Sounded young enough, so new, maybe? They’d certainly killed enough Pinkertons create a need for hires. That was a good thing—wouldn’t know any of their faces. The law had photographs of John and Arthur—John from his time in Sisika, Arthur from before—but Tilly, Charles, and Sadie had never been arrested, and Abigail never for the things they photographed for. Meant the most they might be going on were sketches and verbal descriptions. With Sadie dressed in a skirt and her hair down and the rest dressed inconspicuously, they were easily overlooked as just women, just black folk, easy enough to fade into the background.

“Headed up towards Flatrock.” And that was Abigail, sitting on the front bench with Jack and Tilly, taking charge. “Why, is there a problem?”

“No problem, ma’am, just reports of outlaws in the area. We have reason to believe they might be heading north.”

Abigail had always been a good thief in part because she’d always been a good liar. There was a reason that she’d always leant more Hosea’s way that Dutch’s, and a reason Hosea asked her along on his cons whenever she was willing. And she went right to work. Playing up her concern for Jack, for their own safety—did the Pinkertons know who these outlaws were? Was there any information they should know to keep themselves, members of the innocent public, safe?

They’d established a cover story, because all of them had been taught well. John and Arthur hadn’t been included, of course, but they were involved in the discussion. Abigail and Sadie were married to brothers, ones that bred and trained horses. They were headed north to meet them on their new ranch, up in a town miles away from their actual destination. Tilly was a nursemaid for Jack, Charles a ranch hand who doubled as a guard during travel. Better explained why black and white folk were traveling together, seeing as many people still turned their nose at that whole concept.

“These horses yours?” one of the Pinkertons asked. There were two of them, at least when they introduced themselves to Abigail, but one spoke more than the other.

“My husband’s. He took most of his stock north already, but we have the last of them.”

“Mind if we take a look in the back of your wagon? Just a precaution, you know?”

John could feel himself stiffen almost unconsciously, but Abigail took it in stride. “Sure thing, though there ain’t much besides luggage and tack back there. Watch the gold horse, he bites.”

John found himself reaching for his revolver, the one he’d tucked out of the way between two crates. It was more a habit than anything else, wanting to feel the metal against his palm, the weight like a kind of safety. But, before he could get it, there was a hand around his wrist, and he followed the hand up to the arm, to shoulder to neck to face to meet Arthur’s eyes.

Strong, piercing, even in the dim light, like they were cutting right through John. Hair splayed out around his head. Didn’t let up on John’s wrist as he lifted a finger to his lips, slow and careful.

Silence. Needed silence. Of course John knew they needed to be quiet, and he hoped there was enough light in the space for Arthur to see that he rolled his eyes back at him. Arthur still kept a hold on him.

Someone dismounted. Footsteps circled the wagon, came around back. Had to pass around two horse strings tethered in back, no doubt moved into groups with the wagon not moving. Stopped somewhere too close sounding, and the few dots of light that filtered into the crawlspace between the gaps flickered as something blocked the light. John frozen, heart pounding, Arthur’s hand hot against his skin as they waited.

And then there was a squeal and a stomp of a hoof, and the Pinkerton said, “Christ,” before the footsteps scrambled away, and then, “Easy boy,” from further away as a horse continued to snort and stamp its feet.

Up front, Jack started into a half-muffled giggle fit and beside the wagon, maybe where she was mounted, Sadie said, “She did tell you he bites.” Ah. Buell.

“I am sorry about him,” Abigail said, and then, quieter, “Ain’t nice to laugh, Jack.”

A throat clearing, someone dusting off their clothing, probably the Pinkerton again. Arthur, still gripping John’s wrist, still looking over at him, eyes bright, mouthed, Fool, and John almost forgot to be annoyed with him. The Pinkerton, voice now closer to where he started, said, “Right, well, uh, sorry to bother you folks.”

“It was no trouble,” Abigail called from the front, voice still bright. “Hope you find whoever you’re looking for.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Hope you get some control of that horse.” There was the sound of someone swinging into a saddle.

“If it were my choice we woulda pawned him off on the nearest fool to be suckered by his color. Husband says he’s got good bloodlines though, so we’re stuck with him ‘til his breedin’ days are done.”

“Ah, well. Good luck, ma’am, and be safe.”

And then the wagon was rolling again, as simple as that.

It wasn’t until they were well away and the Pinkertons must’ve been out of sight that Abigail called back, “How you boys doin’?” and John finally let out the breath he’d been holding, and Arthur finally let go of his wrist.

“Fine, Abigail,” Arthur said, knocking a few fingers on the board stretching over them as John shoved the crates back out of the way and got some air. “Suppose we got Buell to thank for that.”

“He nearly bit that man.” Jack, leaning over the back of the front bench, had a gleeful tone to his voice.

“If he weren’t good for bitin’ bad men don’t know why else I’d keep him around.”

John wanted to say something biting, to point out the fact that Arthur was still telling him what to do, still treating him like the idiot kid he hadn’t been for years. Instead he found himself murmuring, “Think that horse might have a better future as a guard dog,” as he slid his way back into place.

Arthur glanced over at him, and if he noticed it was first decent thing John’d offered his way since they got in the wagon, he didn’t point it out. “Might not ever need to figure his good mood, that were the plan for him.”

“Might be safer for the rest of us if you kept on the ridin’ horse thing.” John settled back into his blankets, tried not to rub at his wrist where Arthur’d grabbed it, where it felt like the outline of his fingers were still embedded in his skin. Things were going to come to a head sooner or later. Least John could do was be civil until they did.